Valencia adds some power to strong rookie showing

MINNEAPOLIS — Danny Valencia has watched Joe Mauer. He has hit with Justin Morneau. He has tapped into Jim Thome's mind. He has worked on his range at third base.

He is contributing on a playoff-bound team and looks like one of the best rookies in baseball.

Valencia's impressive first season continued Saturday, when his three-run blast to the left field seats in the sixth inning was the big blow in the Twins' 4-2 victory over Oakland at Target Field. He was 2-for-4 to push his batting average to .340 to go with four homers and 33 RBI in 71 games.

"He's around a lot of good hitters," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He's taking notes. And Joe Vavra works as hard as any hitting coach and doesn't get enough credit."

The Twins say they believe Valencia will show his power, and homers in Friday's and Saturday's games against the Athletics he reflected that potential. In 49 games at Class AAA Rochester before he was called up on June 3, he had no homers. He didn't hit a homer with the Twins until his 28th big-league game, a grand slam off Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke on July 26 at Kansas City.


But Valencia has shown good power during batting practice, and it's a matter of him learning to drive balls in the majors. His 17 doubles suggests he has that ability.

Saturday's homer, coming off Dallas Braden (9-13), made a winner of Kevin Slowey, who pitched 6 strong innings in his first start against the A's since he went seven no-hit innings against them Aug. 15. At 13-6, Slowey reached a career high in victories.

Even without more home runs next to his name, Valencia is making a case to finish among the top three in AL Rookie of the Year balloting.

It's hard to see Valencia getting enough support to beat Texas closer Neftali Feliz, who has 36 saves and a blazing fastball. Detroit outfielder Austin Jackson has the advantage of having played all season in the majors, and he's batting .300 with four homers, 34 RBI and 24 stolen bases.

But Valencia finished Saturday's game leading rookies in batting average and slugging percentage (.467). He was second in on-base percentage (.381), third in hits (83) and fourth in total bases. It makes for a decent argument.

Valencia might not have gotten a chance to play regularly this year if not for a series of events earlier this summer.

Brendan Harris and Nick Punto opened the season as a platoon at third base, but that fell apart because of injuries and ineffectiveness. Michael Cuddyer moved there in June for interleague road games, enabling outfielders Jason Kubel and Delmon Young to both remain in the starting lineup.

Harris was demoted to Rochester on June 24. Interleague play ended June 27 but Cuddyer remained at third so that Kubel could play in right and Jim Thome could play regularly at designated hitter, and it appeared as though Valencia might be a candidate to return to the minor leagues. However, since Justin Morneau suffered a concussion July 7, Cuddyer has had to play first. Valencia got his shot at regular playing time and has settled in.


"People have to step up when you have injures, and we were all hoping about this kid," Gardenhire said. "He didn't have great numbers in the minors as far as power numbers, but you get up here and you see a few things. He's worked hard on driving the ball, using the whole field. We know the power is there. We have seen it before."

Valencia, who wears No. 19, is the 19th third baseman the Twins have used since Corey Koskie left as a free agent after the 2004 season. That revolving door might stop spinning now as Valencia is establishing himself.

"It's tough," he said. "You want to be, (as) a first-year guy, able to perform. Luckily I caught a bunch of breaks since I've been here and things couldn't go much better for me than they have right now. I'm happy and thankful and hopefully I'll just keep going with it."

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